While a few police officers around Southern California are being called to task for a variety of questionable practices, others are being honored for exhibiting the highest standards in human relations and ethical behavior. Specifically, members of law enforcement in Long Beach, Orange County and at UCLA were honored recently with the Anti-Defamation League’s Helene & Joseph Sherwood Family Prize for Combating Hate, held at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
The winners included Investigator William Beeman and Deputy James Karr of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department who focus on collecting and cataloguing information about white racist gangs of which Orange County has an unconscionable excess. Sergeant Kevin Kilgore, who works with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community at UCLA, combating hate through offering assistance and working with the community, was also honored, as was Commander Josef Levy of the Long Beach Police Department, who has trained thousands of officers and community leaders in methods of responding to hate crimes and racial profiling. Levy’s exceptional work in demonstrating to other officers how they can enhance their effectiveness “through positive community engagement,” and his outstanding Human Relations Training has spread across the country for the past 16 years, helped by his ties with the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He was assisted in this pioneering effort in the L.B. Police Department by his wife, Lysa Gamboa-Levy, who helped design, update and create the curriculum. Abe Foxman, renowned ADL national director and a survivor of the Holocaust, was the keynote speaker.
These four men have more than earned the honors they received on March 9. But what made this event even more notable is learning that Josef Levy, a 45-year-old Jew with an Egyptian/Israeli background is a 26-year member of Long Beach law enforcement. It’s no secret that there are few Jews found in police work, so, how did this come about? An Egyptian Jew who, as a young boy, had absolutely no interest in guns — nor had ever even handled one — and who in his teen years was quietly helping his father in their popular Leona Rose Bakery in Long Beach, learning the art of making pastel fondant roses to decorate bridal and birthday cakes! It was a stretch to connect.
“While I was working in the bakery,” he recounted, as we chatted over coffee and bagels, “sometimes police officers would come in to buy the sweet cakes, and I would talk to them, ask them about their jobs. They were interested in me, and they would talk to me about [their work]. They were eager to help me, and we became friends. So, I got interested in the idea of becoming a police officer. They encouraged me and invited me to come to the Police Academy.” So that’s how it began.
By then he had graduated from Wilson High School and became a student at Long Beach City College. But after a year in school and a stint at the Police Reserve Academy, he dropped out. “I fell in love with police work,” he admitted, and was accepted into law enforcement in 1985. Now this Haifa, Israel-born young man was on his way.
“I’ve had so many experiences, first as a patrol officer, then a field training officer for new recruits, then in the felony unit working with gangs and street-level narcotics — undercover — I had to buy and sell drugs,” he said wrinkling his nose in disgust at the memory. He worked for seven years on the SWAT Team as a hostage negotiator, among his many responsibilities. As a result, he, together with his wife, created the Cultural Awareness Program for the police department, the department’s first meaningful human relations program. This was an important move since the 2000 U.S. census designated Long Beach as the most culturally diverse city in the nation.
After putting up a fierce battle with thyroid cancer for a whole year, in 2008 he decided to go back to school, enrolling at California State University Long Beach where he completed his B.A. degree in 2010. But his cancer experience made an indelible mark on him, and with his humanitarian and Jewish values taking priority, he immediately founded a police foundation for those who experienced cancer or had family members with the disease. It is known as the Law Enforcement Cancer Support Foundation, and recently he became its president. As a survivor, his natural positive attitude (which he attributes to his parents) toward life is manifested in his continuing to speak out for “living each day to the fullest and not sweating the small stuff,” he said. Proudly, he added that the foundation “is supported by volunteers.”
Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, Levy said he was surrounded by love and a love for Judaism. “That was my father’s legacy,” he said. “We went to temple every Shabbat, and he lived a life of mitzvah, always telling us to remember that there is always someone in a worse situation than you.” His father, Nessim, fled Egypt as a young man, when Jews began to be targeted, accused of being spies for Israel prior to the founding of the State. He traveled to Alexandria with the help of friends, and thence to Israel where he met his future wife, Esther, who had come to Israel from Italy. Josef was born in Israel, as were his two older brothers and sister, Elijah, Ezra and Betty. With $25 in Nessim’s pocket the whole family emigrated to the U.S. — Chicago — when Joe was six months old. His father went to work for Best Kosher Foods, but the work was hard and the weather worse, so following his sister who lived in Long Beach, they arrived in Southern California in 1968. After working at Lucky Stores plant in the meat department, the plucky Nessim took whatever holdings he had and with two friends bought Leona Rose Bakery. And the rest is history.
Nessim, now deceased, left his children with a strong work ethic, a love of Judaism and a feeling for humanity and performing mitzvot, all of which Joe, his youngest, has in strong measure.
When Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell was questioned about Levy during an interview before the ADL event, his praise was extraordinary. “Joe? He’s an all-star chief in integrity, courage, credibility. He’s someone who knows what’s right. Joe has a way with people; I wish we could clone his leadership qualities. He’s got the biggest heart in the world. He goes out and looks for problems just so he can fix them.”
With that kind of evaluation, it’s no surprise that last October Levy was raised to Commander of the West Division of the police department, overseeing 120 law enforcement employees and a $17 million budget.
On his own time he trains community volunteers through his Human Dignity Program with some of the skills he imparts to law enforcement colleagues, and it has now become a national model for engaging citizens in helping to prevent youth and gang violence and providing awareness to cultural differences. Currently, Levy works closely with the Southern California Interfaith Coalition, the California Conference for Equality and Justice (formerly the National Conference for Christians and Jews) and sits on the board of directors of Goodwill Industries. Besides his wife Lysa, he has four sons and is a member of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach.